ALMOST every job demands public speaking. Here are some tips to improve.
My Public Speaking Horror Story:
I delivered speeches all over the Metro Detroit area for advisors hoping to wow potential new clients. You probably know about–and may have been invited to–these seminars. An advisor offers a free dinner, hires me, and my job is to make the advisor seem brilliant enough that she scores a few clients. I was a great rainmaker. At the end of my presentations over 80% of the people in the room (on average) requested a consultation with an advisor.
One night an advisor held a seminar at a restaurant with a banquet room in the basement. It turned out that on weekends this same room was used as a comedy club. To celebrate the cool surroundings, and feeling pretty full of myself, I decided to lead the seminar with a joke.
Rule #1: Jokes are dangerous
Generally, while it’s good to let your personality shine on stage, telling a set-piece joke isn’t the world’s best idea. Most people in the room will see it for what it is….a disarming device. Because people are smart, they’ll fold their arms and clam up even more. I wish I could remember the joke I decided to tell. It had nothing to do with financial planning or the event. I remember that involved a dog and pirates.
I also remember that nobody laughed.
Unless it’s the point of your seminar and you know exactly how the punchline intertwines with your overall message, don’t tell jokes when public speaking.
The lack of laughter should have stopped me, but it didn’t. I thought I could “win them back.” The crowd and servers were helping my cause. Even though the advisor wasn’t providing alcohol, they allowed patrons to buy their own, and some people in the back of the room were emptying their wallets for the bartender. By the end of the seminar, they’d already thrown out a couple of half-drunk questions, and I’d confidently swatted them away.
Rule #2: Don’t speak off-the-cuff
This also is a problem. While I was successful at knocking down the questions, the fact that I did so only increased my arrogance that I could talk off-the-cuff. If you’re speaking in public, stick to prepared remarks. Anything you’ve practiced in front of others who are experienced speakers will lower the chance that you’ll wind up embarrassing yourself. Think about the news: nearly every time a speaker gets into trouble, it’s when they “wing it.”
So, here I am, emboldened, and about to make an ass out of myself.
The drunk woman in the back asked, “Why should you get a will? Here’s what I did: I just put my kids’ names on all of my stuff and that takes care of everything. No probate court or anything.”
I felt like a major leaguer playing against an amateur. Answering this one was going to be child’s play.
Here was my answer:
“That will work, but here’s the problem…and by the way, these are the kinds of things that pros think about that rarely happen, but they’re also the reason you do it the right way instead of taking shortcuts.
Let’s say you split everything with your daughter and she is a new driver. She slides on some ice and broadsides a school bus full of kids with parents that have good lawyers. Half of your stuff is subject to that lawsuit.”
I was killin’ it, wasn’t I? Oh, yeah! If you had been there, you’d know just how brilliant I was. It was a flippin’ work of art. Those people in the room were lucky that night: they were witnessing a master.
“Or worse, your daughter might be a great girl, but you never know how kids will turn out, do you? Your daughter comes home one day with someone she shouldn’t and announces that she’s getting married to….I don’t know….to a biker.”
I wanted to stuff it back in the moment I said it.
Sitting right in front of me, literally front row center, and they’d been there for the whole first hour of the speech, was a group of people in leather chaps with motorcycle helmets.
And it Gets Worse
Not only did it turn out that I’d picked on bikers, but I picked on bikers who marched on the state capital each year to fight for biker’s rights and to help overcome stereotypes that bikers were some low-life group of people.
The second I finished the woman approached me. “It’s people like you who we fight against every day. You’re an idiot.”
Yes, I was.
Did I mean the comment about the biker? Actually, I couldn’t think of anything so just blurted out the first thing that came to mind. Maybe I’d thought of it because they were SITTING RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME!
So the moral, Stackers: Don’t speak off the cuff. Don’t tell jokes. Prep your material carefully. Take audience questions at your peril, and if you do, stick with answers that you’ve given successfully in prior speeches or practiced with your speaking trainers and friends.
You know, I’ve always wanted to call you an idiot Joe. I’m so glad the biker did 🙂
Seriously though, I’m sure that you wanted to crawl in a hole. Rough, but it gave you a good story! Good public speaking tips. The key is to prep the material so thoroughly that it seems like you are going “off the cuff” but not actually going “off the cuff”.
Good luck with the new site brother!
Thanks! Yeah, the biker beat you to it, but there’s always time to pile on 😉
I’m not surprised that, as a theater guy, you hit the nail squarely, Greg. That’s why I succeeded: it wasn’t my ability to talk off the cuff, but it was my ability to be relaxed and say something naturally that I’d said hundreds of times before.
Mrs PoP @ PlantingOurPennies
The science behind these kinds of flubs is actually pretty interesting. You only have so much brain resources, so if you waste a lot worrying you’re more likely to flub up. And then once you’ve started to mess up, you know it and worry more and just keep digging yourself a deeper hole. It happens to a lot of people every once in a while. Miss Utah just happened to be on live tv for it. =(
As a stutterer, I can see that. I know that was true when I messed up on television. I freaked out so bad about the fact that I was blowing it on tv that I completely lost track of the fact that I was trying to explain something to an audience.
Matt @ momanddadmoney
Couldn’t agree more with Greg’s point. My public speaking experience is extremely limited (ok so we’re basically talking about high school science project presentations here!) but the most successful speeches were those that were so practiced that they felt like I was delivering them off the cuff. No one wants to hear you read from a piece of paper. Spend the time to practice and know your stuff by heart. Deliver it with personality. And don’t insult your audience!!! (Just messing with you)
Ha! I’ll bet that was a rough high school science project, though!
Kyle @ Debt Free Diaries
I’ve messed up plenty of times when talking to people. I fully admit that almost every single time it got worse when I tried to “wing it”.
It’s frustrating, Kyle. The smooth stuff you’re thinking in your head doesn’t seem to come out smoothly at all.
Public Speaking is like the #1 fear for many people. I definitely think that practicing and preping before hand is very important. The most engaging speakers I’ve heard are ones who tell some kind of story. I’m sure this is harder in a business setting but still possible. I’d be bored to depth if they just listed bullet points and spoke in a monotone voice.
Great points, Andrew! I think I’m lucky there…my brain thinks in analogies and quirky stories. I have no idea why that is…..
Edward - Entry Level Dilemma
Aside from the (I’ve been told) grating timbre of my voice, I’ve never been able to fully overcome my childhood speech impediment.. It doesn’t matter how well I know what I’m saying and how comfortable I am speaking to the group. My brain simply turns off in the middle of a sentence sometimes.
It’s funny….people tell me that I have a good “radio voice” but I disagree. I’m a stutterer and don’t have any natural smoothness to my voice. Speech impediments are tough. There are days I can’t stop stuttering no matter what I do.
The reason I’ve never had a terrible experience with public speaking is because I avoid it like the plague. I’ve had to do two big things with public speaking in my life, a speech at my high school graduation and a lecture in front of optometrists to complete my residency. I think those two did me in for life. I’ll do small groups, but never a big audience again. I’m glad the bikers didn’t beat you up in the parking lot, but they were likely the most civilized people in the room.
Math isn’t your strong suit, either, is it…
I mean, “everything can go swimmingly 99% of the time, but the other 10%…”. But that’s okay, we like you anyway. You’re pretty. :-p
Ha! We have a winner! I was wondering how long it was going to take someone to catch that. I wrote it and DIDN’T catch it the first pass, but then caught it just before it went to print. I decided to leave it as my own personal joke….now it’s our joke 😉